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In Focus: Hollywood Stars of the '30s

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The early '30s is unparalleled in the history of cinema for the sheer number of important stars that emerged and (in general) for the longevity of their careers. A quick stroll through the era gives us Bette Davis, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert, Edward G. Robinson, Jean Harlow, William Powell, Boris Karloff, Cary Grant, Paul Muni, and many others.

Barbara Stanwyck

Joan Crawford

James Cagney

These actors represent the greatest bumper crop of stars in Hollywood's history. Some had appeared in silent movies but few really received the push for stardom, with strong studio backing, until the sound era. And for each, the movies at the beginning of the sound era played a crucial role in developing their personas.

For some of the actors in this group, this period produced their greatest work—Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, Jean Harlow in Red Dust, Paul Muni in Scarface, for example. But for other stars, this period has not really received its due for the important role it played in establishing their personas and careers. How many people, for example, know James Cagney's Mayor of Hell or Joan Crawford's Possessed?

So in this edition of In Focus, we feature three actors whose early '30s movies deserve a little more recognition: James Cagney from Warner Brothers, Joan Crawford from MGM, and Barbara Stanwyck from Columbia (and Warner Brothers). For this group of actors, their early films, while not exactly obscure, have not attracted the same amount of attention as the roles from later in their careers, once their personas were already well developed. With only a few exceptions—Cagney in Public Enemy and Crawford in Grand Hotel, for example—the movies from the early thirties for these stars have not been widely recognized for the important roles they played in their careers.

But this period has proven to be astonishingly fertile, for many of the star vehicle movies are terrifically entertaining. This is the period, for example, where James Cagney really honed his persona as the tough city mug who used his brains—and fists—to get ahead. And this is the time when Joan Crawford really developed her persona as the woman willing to sacrifice everything—including her happiness—for success. And the studios from which these stars hailed played an important role in developing these personas, with the interests of each studio pushing their stars in different directions.

So please use the links below to follow us as we give you a tour of the early '30s Hollywood stars and the studios that pushed them toward stardom.

Go to James Cagney

Go to Barbara Stanwyck

Go to Joan Crawford

Photo Credits: MGM/UA Home Video.

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